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6 Tea Ingredients That Can Help You Unwind, Relax and Chill Out

Posted By Mark Sisson On April 9, 2013 @ 8:00 am In Health,Stress | 134 Comments

A popular product class is the “sleepy time” tea. These are the teas which purport to help you unwind from a rough day, relax in the midst of exterior (or interior) chaos, and chill out in a state of relatively peaceful bliss. Many of us live in a state of constant stress [7] punctuated by bouts of acute but transient ease of mind, when it should be the other way around (constant ease of mind punctuated by bouts of acute but transient stress [8]), and these teas and their ingredients claim to help you correct the imbalance. But supplement manufacturers say a lot of things, not all of them true.

What works? What actually helps you ease troubled thoughts? What’s actually worth your money and the time it takes to brew a cup of hot water?

For those who balk at the idea of supplementing an otherwise solid Primal eating plan [9], don’t be so hasty in your dismissal. Modern life presents novel stressor after novel stressor after novel stressor. Not all of us spend blissed out lives at the beach, or on a remote mountaintop communing with nature, or floating through life on a cloud of bodhisattva farts. Life is hard and often unpleasant, and we don’t get a lot of downtime these days. Smart use of select herbs and roots with anxiolytic [10], calming, soothing, relaxing properties can go a long way toward restoring the Primal balance between active engagement with the hectic world and passive downtime. The way I see it is if we’re trying to emulate the physiological, psychological, and spiritual state [11] of human being established as “normal” by natural selection, we may have to take a few extra steps to get there. Humans don’t do very well under chronic stress [12], so mitigating supraphysiological stress by supraphysiological means (whether through meditation [13] or chamomile or taking a plane to Hawaii [14]) makes sense and is unabashedly Primal.

Ultimately, it’s about feeling better and improving our health, no matter the means. I go with what works, regardless of some kind of ideology, using our human evolutionary heritage as a starting point and utilizing the best of 21st century technology [15] to get real results with the least amount of pain, suffering and sacrifice as possible.

Now, let’s take a look at some of these so-called stress relief tea ingredients:

Kava Kava

What is it?

Kava is a crop grown in the South Pacific. Traditionally, its roots were chewed fresh (with the resultant liquid often spit into communal bowls), pounded to release the moisture, or sun-dried, ground, and steeped in water to make an intoxicating, relaxing mild sedative. Nowadays, the active kavalactones are also extracted and pressed into capsules.


Most Pacific cultures used kava, including those of Hawaii, Polynesia, Tonga, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea (to name a few).

What is it purported to do?

It’s supposed to reduce anxiety, induce calmness, cause sedation without mental impairment, and generally chill a person out.

Does the research back that up?

Yes. A Cochrane review concluded that kava extract is effective against anxiety [16], while another review [17] found that kava has no significant negative effects on cognition.

Is it safe?

There appears to be some concern toward hepatotoxicity. The tendency of some supplement makers to use the leaves and sticks (which contain toxins) to increase yield may lead to hepatotoxicity, but the root itself appears reasonably safe. Preparation may also matter; traditionally, kava is prepared with water, whereas modern processing often uses alcohol. Water-based kava preparations extract different proportions of active compounds than alcohol-based kava preparations. For instance, water extracts glutathione (a powerful antioxidant that our bodies manufacture) from kava, whereas alcohol does not, and this could have ramifications for toxicity. Like many other psychoactive compounds, though, kava root should not be consumed with alcohol, prescription drugs, or any other substance which stresses the liver. Kava Kava root itself is non habit forming, and does not appear to impair driving ability [18].

Where to find it?

Amazon.com has several options available (here [19], here [20], or here [21] if you prefer extracts), but there are also designated online vendors [22]. Make sure you stick with actual root (dried, ground, whole, or fresh) or supplements that only use the root and not the leaves.


What is it?

An amino acid found in tea leaves, especially green tea [23].


It’s technically been around for thousands of years, or as long as people have been harvesting and brewing tea (and even longer, unless you answer in the negative to “If green tea grows in the forest and nobody brews it, does it still impart a healthy dose of L-theanine?”), but it wasn’t until 1949 that L-theanine was isolated and identified by Japanese scientists who proceeded to stick it into a variety of different products.

What is it purported to do?

L-theanine is promoted as a stress-relieving compound that binds to GABA receptors and induces changes in brain waves indicative of relaxation.

Does the research back that up?

Yes, it appears to lower the negative effects of stress, reduce anxiety, and improve relaxation, as a quick look at the literature shows:

Is it safe?

The LD50 [29] of L-theanine is incredibly high and impossible to reach via tea and nearly impossible to reach via supplement (you’d have to take dozens of bottles or drink hundreds of gallons).

Where to find it?

It’s richest in green tea, with matcha [12] appearing to have the highest L-theanine content. Taking L-theanine via capsule is roughly the same as taking it via tea [30]. It’s also present in Primal Calm [31].


What is it?

A flowering plant similar to the daisy that can be infused in hot water to produce a relaxing, calming tea.


The use of chamomile as a medicinal herb dates back at least to the ancient Egyptians. In medieval Europe, chamomile was a “strewing herb” (herbs which were strewn about the floor of living spaces), a beer-making ingredient, and one of the Nine Sacred Herbs used by Anglo-Saxon god Woden (or Odin in Norse mythology) to “smote the serpent.” In other words, it was pretty dang significant to people throughout history.

What is it purported to do?

Act as a mild sedative and anti-anxiety agent.

Does the research back that up?

Yes, several studies show efficacy:

Is it safe?

It’s pretty safe, with a couple exceptions: pregnant women, for whom chamomile can induce uterine contractions (PDF [34]), potentially leading to early labor; and people with ragweed allergies, for whom chamomile can exhibit cross-reactivity symptoms.

Where to find it?

Chamomile tea, being one of the more common varieties, is easy to find. This is a legit brand [35], or you could grow your own [36]. Chamomile provides attractive (and useful) ground cover for your garden.

Valerian Root

What is it?

It’s a root, obviously, most often served up as dried powder in capsules, a tea, or a tincture. The plant itself has lovely flowers and leaves that resemble ferns, but it’s the root and rhizome we’re interested in.


Ayurvedic, Chinese, and classical Hellenic medical systems employed valerian as an anti-insomnia and anti-anxiety medicine. More recently, it was prescribed to Edward Norton’s insomniac character in Fight Club (“chew some valerian root”). I can’t remember if it was in the book, too.

What is it purported to do?

It’s said to be a mild but effective sedative, anxiolytic, and sleep aid, akin to the benzodiazepine class of drugs without the side effects.

Does the research back that up?

Kinda. There are a few studies, but the results are mixed:

  • Among patients with generalized anxiety disorder, valerian [37] extract has an anxiolytic effect on the “psychic symptoms of anxiety.”
  • Valerian may be effective [38] against obsessive compulsive disorder.
  • Among insomniacs, valerian extract improves [39] the “sleep efficiency,” reducing morning grogginess and improving sleep architecture. Another study [40], using lower amounts of valerian, did not get the same results.
  • A 2006 meta-analysis was unable to decide whether or not it was effective against anxiety, however. Another review [41] concluded that valerian “might improve sleep quality without producing side effects,” while a more recent one [42] (of just RCTs) found it likely to improve subjective insomnia symptoms.

Overall, the weight of the anecdotal evidence, my own experience with it, and the fact that some, but not all, clinical trials find efficacy, leads me to the tentative conclusion that valerian can be useful against anxiety and maybe insomnia.

Is it safe?

Valerian is safe, well-tolerated, and seems to have fewer side effects than pharmaceutical sedatives and anti-anxiety meds. Pregnant women should avoid it due to a lack of safety studies.

Where to find it?

Any health food store should carry the capsules and the tea, and perhaps even the whole or ground root. Online is always an option, of course. I recommend buying the root direct [43].

Rhodiola Rosea

What is it?

Also known as rose root or arctic root, rhodiola rosea hails from Siberia originally and pretty much everywhere else that’s cold – the Arctic, the Rockies, Northern Europe, the mountains of central Asia – and possesses a root with interesting characteristics.


Ancient Greeks, Viking raiders, Central Asian horsemen, Chinese emperors – they all prized rhodiola rosea as an anti-fatigue, anti-stress medicinal herb.

What is it purported to do?

Act as a powerful adaptogen, a compound which improves your ability to adapt to physiological stressors without compromising your body’s normal ability to function once removed.

Does the research back that up?

Definitely. Although most of the research comes from Scandinavia and Russia, there are a good number of trials available on Pubmed:

Overall, rhodiola rosea improves your ability to handle stress [50]. If you’re lagging, it’ll bring things up. If you’re freaking out, it’ll bring you closer to baseline.

Is it safe?

It seems to be extremely safe [51].

Where to find it?

Primal Calm [31] has it, as do plenty of other products. You can even buy it in bulk [52].

Magnolia Bark

What is it?

Magnolia bark is the lay name for magnolia officinalis, a deciduous tree whose bark is prized in traditional Chinese medicine.


People have been using the bark for its medicinal qualities as far back as 100 AD.

What is it purported to do?

It gets billed as a sedative with strong anti-anxiety and anti-stress effects.

Does the research back that up?

For the most part, yes:

Is it safe?

While there are no long-term safety studies, trials indicate an extreme paucity of negative side effects. As always, exercise caution if you’re pregnant [59].

Where to find it?

I use it in Primal Calm [31]. Chinese herb stores will have it (if you’ve got a Chinatown in your city, you can probably find it there).

Some teas blend some or all of these (and other) ingredients, so not only are you getting the dozens of bioactive compounds found in this herb, root, or rhizome, you’re getting the hundreds of bioactive compounds found in these other herbs, roots, and rhizomes. Plus, one ingredient might potentiate, inhibit, or otherwise modify the action of another ingredient, so it’s difficult to predict exactly what you’ll be getting out of a blend. Take valerian and lemon balm, which combine to become an effective anti-anxiety blend [60] against acute stress.

With the possible exception of kava kava, though, I wouldn’t worry too much about any interactions – and even with kava, it seems reasonably safe as long as you’re smart and moderate about it while avoiding alcohol [61] and other compounds with a liver load.

That’s it for this week, folks. Next week, I’ll explore some other helpful ingredients in tea. Thanks for reading!

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[6] supplements: http://primalblueprint.com/categories/Store/Supplements/?utm_source=mda_wwsgd&utm_medium=link&utm_campaign=mda_wwsgd_supplements

[7] constant stress: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-physical-toll-of-negative-emotions/

[8] acute but transient stress: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/hormesis-how-certain-kinds-of-stress-can-actually-be-good-for-you/

[9] supplementing an otherwise solid Primal eating plan: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/definitive-guide-to-primal-supplementation/

[10] anxiolytic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anxiolytic

[11] spiritual state: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/spiritual-encounters-in-nature/#axzz23HTckodo

[12] chronic stress: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/dear-mark-matcha-tea-runners-high-stress-and-weight-gain-and-fasting-for-teens/

[13] meditation: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/mindful-eating-the-art-of-being-present-at-the-dinner-table/

[14] taking a plane to Hawaii: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-restorative-power-of-the-personal-retreat/

[15] the best of 21st century technology: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/when-science-trumps-grok/

[16] effective against anxiety: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12535473

[17] review: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21437989

[18] appear to impair driving ability: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23259514

[19] here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00A80163M/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B00A80163M&linkCode=as2&tag=marsdaiapp07-20

[20] here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B002EWUBUQ/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B002EWUBUQ&linkCode=as2&tag=marsdaiapp07-20

[21] here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0036THN8E/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0036THN8E&linkCode=as2&tag=marsdaiapp07-20

[22] designated online vendors: https://www.nakamalathome.com/

[23] green tea: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/to-tea-or-not-to-tea/

[24] reduces: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23107346

[25] improves sleep quality: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22214254

[26] have found relief from anxiety: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21208586

[27] GABA levels and dopamine: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17182482

[28] increases brain wave activity in the alpha frequency: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18296328

[29] LD50: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Median_lethal_dose

[30] L-theanine via capsule is roughly the same as taking it via tea: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23096008

[31] Primal Calm: http://primalblueprint.com/products/Primal-Calm.html

[32] reduce anxiety levels: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19593179

[33] possesses anxiolytic and sedative effects: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7617761

[34] PDF: http://www.tceconsult.org/TOW%20downloads/Supplements&SpecialFoods/Chamomile062705.pdf

[35] This is a legit brand: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0009F3PM6/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0009F3PM6&linkCode=as2&tag=marsdaiapp07-20

[36] grow your own: http://www.motherearthliving.com/health-and-wellness/chamomile.aspx

[37] valerian: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12410546

[38] may be effective: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22718671

[39] improves: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11731907

[40] study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18482867

[41] review: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17145239

[42] one: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20347389

[43] buying the root direct: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001VNKZFK/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B001VNKZFK&linkCode=as2&tag=marsdaiapp07-20

[44] contains 140 known bioactive compounds: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20378318

[45] stress-related fatigue: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19016404

[46] improves symptoms: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17990195

[47] appears effective: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18307390

[48] improves endurance performance: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15256690

[49] fight against overtraining: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20034236

[50] improves your ability to handle stress: http://smart-drugs.net/Rhodiola-rosea.htm

[51] seems to be extremely safe: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21036578

[52] buy it in bulk: http://www.starwest-botanicals.com/category/rhodiola-root/

[53] enhance the activity of GABA receptors: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22445602

[54] magnolia bark reduces anxiety: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18426577

[55] may reduce stress hormones: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10856439

[56] reducing “stress eating: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16454147

[57] makes it more effective: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21311416

[58] libido: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/a-guide-to-maintaining-a-healthy-sex-drive/

[59] pregnant: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/5-primal-superfoods-for-fertility-and-pregnancy/

[60] combine to become an effective anti-anxiety blend: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16444660

[61] alcohol: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/alcohol-the-good-and-the-bad/

[62] Primal Blueprint Books: http://primalblueprint.com/categories/Store/Books-and-Media/?utm_source=mda_sidebar&utm_medium=banner&utm_campaign=sidebar_like_article_books

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